One Day In September

In the early-morning hours of Sept. 5, 1972, eight masked Palestinian terrorists from a militant group called Black September broke into the Olympic Village in Munich, murdered two Israeli athletes, and held nine more members of the delegation hostage. After a long, tense afternoon of negotiations and plotting, the 21-hour crisis ended in a spectacularly botched showdown at a small German airbase, resulting in the deaths of all the hostages, five of the terrorists, and one German police officer. Broadcast to hundreds of millions of TV viewers, the horrific events played out on an international stage, but the full picture is only now coming to light, first in Simon Reeve's exhaustive book One Day In September, and then with Kevin Macdonald's Oscar-winning documentary of the same name. A disciple of Errol Morris (The Thin Blue Line), whom he recently profiled in a television documentary, Macdonald re-examines the tragedy in a breathless rush of interview and archival footage, hypnotic music cues, and one boldly stylized reenactment. Other than a few grim shots of Palestinian refugee camps, little background is given about Black September's cause, but the film's true indignation is aimed not at the terrorists, but at the German authorities' arrogance and ineptitude. As part of an effort to promote Munich as a safe and cosmopolitan city while restoring the country's image after the notoriously propagandistic 1936 Berlin Games, Germany slackened its security at every venue, allowing easy entry into the Olympic Village. Then, rather than accept the assistance of expert Israeli anti-terrorist troops, the Germans staged a pair of poorly considered, even laughable, attempts to free the hostages, ending in misdirected gunfire and pointless killing. Macdonald's coup de grace is the airport sequence, which uses computer-generated models and color-coded figures to pinpoint the woefully inadequate positions from which the German snipers tried to pick off their targets. Time constraints limit what the film can accomplish: The aftermath, including Israel's bloody, methodical revenge and Germany's dubious exchange of the three surviving terrorists for hostages on a Lufthansa flight, is relegated to little more than a footnote. But as a vivid and politically charged supplement to Reeve's book, One Day In September fleshes out a piece of history that even the omnipresent cameras couldn't see.

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